Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Alcibiades, Plato and Some Amazing Insights. Part 1, the Historical Alcibiades

Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1785).
Artist: Jean-Baptiste Regnault (France, 1754-1829).
Image credit: Wikipedia. In the painting, Socrates is pulling his young lover
Alcibiades away from the arms of a woman. Discussions about sex pervade Plato's
dialogue about Alcibiades as well as accounts of the historical Alcibiades.

Introductory Notes
Alcibiades is a two-part dialogue attributed to Plato. The references to Persians and Zoroaster by Plato in his dialogue, and the story of the historical Alcibiades as well, present us with fascinating information and insights about how the Greeks perceived the Persians, the training of Persian princes in Zoroastrianism, and about some of the machinings that took place behind the scenes in Greek-Persian relations. We will let the reader decide who were the real villains and victims in this charade.

The Historical Alcibiades
The historical Alcibiades lived c. 450–404 BCE, and was a controversial politician and general during the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens (431 to 404 BCE. See map below. ). The war between Sparta and Athens (Athens was ethnically Ionian, Asian?, while the Spartans were ethnically Dorian, northerners?) was one of the most destructive wars in ancient history and one which brought to an end the golden age in Greek history.

Plutarch (Plutarch, Alcibiades, 6-8) states that Socrates was amongst Alcibiades' teachers and that Alcibiades "feared and reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest of his (Socrates' many) lovers". Plato informs us that the much older Socrates was the young and exceptionally handsome Alcibiades' first (male) lover.

Map of Ancient Greece. The Peloponnesus peninsula is the located to the southwest
of the mainland. Sparta lies to the south of the peninsula while Athens lies east of the
peninsula's isthmus.
Loved & Hated
Alcibiades' Anti-Spartan Alliance & Its Defeat
Alcibiades was variously loved and hated by the Athenians. In 421 BCE Alcibiades gained notoriety as the political opponent of Nicias/Nikias and the peace-party that had negotiated peace with Sparta after years of indecisive warring. According to the historian Thucydides, who knew Alcibiades well and who wrote about him dispassionately, Alcibiades vainly opposed the treaty because the Spartans had not negotiated through him. The slighted Alcibiades instead constructed an anti-Spartan alliance between the democracies of Athens Argos, Mantinea and Elis, the latter three being city-states neighboring Sparta in the Peloponnese. He then advocated a resumption of the war with Sparta. In 418, a crushing Spartan victory at Mantinea broke up Alcibiades' anti-Spartan alliance.
Spartans and Athenians at war

Incident Regarding the Phallic God Hermes
In 415 BCE, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to send a major military expedition to Sicily against Syracuse, Syracuse was the most powerful city state in Sicily. It was Dorian by ethnicity (as was Sparta), and it was a colony of Corinth, a Spartan ally. The night before the expedition was to set sail, the Hermae, that is, heads of the god Hermes on a plinth with a phallus, were mysteriously mutilated throughout Athens.

A Herma plinth - a roadside marker rep-
resenting the phallic god Hermes. In Athens,
herms or hermae were placed as roadside
markers and outside houses for good luck.
Before we continue our narrative, we will take a short aside to discuss the Hermae plinth and the god Hermes. In Greek mythology, Hermes, god of boundaries, exchange, cunning thieves and tricksters - popularly the messenger god carrying messages from the gods to humans - was considered to be a phallic deity. He was conceived as a result of the Olympian supreme god Zeus' adulterous love of the nymph Maia/Maya (cf. Gaia/Gaya), daughter of the more ancient Titan god Atlas. Next morning, Maia gave birth to Hermes in a cave hiding from the certain wrath of Zeus' wife (who was also his sister) Hera, were she to discover the object of her husband's (very frequent) infidelity. By nightfall of the first day of his birth, the infant Hermes stole the immortal cattle of Apollo, making them walk backwards so that their footprints might make it appear they were walking in the opposite direction. He thereby showed his skills not just as a thief, but as a trickster as well. Hermes went on to become a procurer to satisfy the sexual desires of the gods of Olympus. In Rome, his counterpart Mercury was one of the most immodest of the Jovian gods. He was employed by Jupiter (Zeus' Roman counterpart) to deliver amorous messages.

A devotee placing a Herma near an altar
The Homeric hymn to Hermes invokes him as a much-traveled (polytropos) i.e. wandering, blandly cunning, robber, cattle driver, bringer of dreams, watcher by night, thief at the gates. His image was commonly a head mounted on a Herm or pillar that include an erect phallus. The herms/hermae were used as roadside markers and were placed outside homes for good luck. This is the backdrop to what happened next - events that had a profound impact on history and subsequent Greek-Persian relations.

Alcibiades Sentenced to Death by Athenians
We now return to our narrative. In the ensuing melee after the discovery of the vandalized hermae, Alcibiades was accused of being the originator of the sacrilege as well as of having profaned the Eleusinian Mysteries. Perhaps because in one of his roles - Hermes was the god who protected travellers - the act was seen as an attempt to sabotage the voyage to Sicily. Alcibiades demanded an immediate inquiry to clear his name, but his enemies fearing that soldiers loyal to him might protect him, ensured that he sailed with the charge still hanging over him. However, when he and his troops reached Sicily, he was recalled alone to stand trail, and a state ship was sent to bring him back to Athens.

Alcibiades Flees to Sparta. Advises Sparta Against Athens
Fearing for his life, Alcibiades did not return to Athens. Instead he fled to Sparta where he convinced the Spartans that he could assist them in their cause. Sure enough, while he was hiding in Sparta, the Athenians found Alcibiades guilty in absentia and sentenced him to death. But soon he would have to flee Sparta, this time seeking the protection of the Persian satrap (governor-general) of Lydia and Caria, Tissaphernes.

Alcibiades Seduces Timaia Queen of Sparta
The reason for Alcibiades fleeing Sparta was the disclosure of his affair with Timaia, the wife of Spartan King Agis II while the latter was away warring at Decelea with his army. Alcibiades was also likely the father of the son she bore. When news of the affair became public, a death warrant was issued for Alcibiades - but fortunately for him, he was sailing to Asia Minor at the time.

Map of ancient Greek states c. 500-400 BCE. Note Medising states -
states friendly to the Persian Empire - in blue.
1. To see a larger map click here          2. To see an additional map click here
Alcibiades Flees to Persian Lands
Becomes Adviser & Manipulates Persians

In Asia minor, Alcibiades fled the long arms of both Athenian and Spartan law, seeking refuge this time in lands of the Persian Empire (Lydia, Caria and Phrygia. See map above) that bordered the Greek island states of Lesbos, home of the Lesbians, Ionia and Samos, home to the Asiatic Greeks and the Athenian naval fleet. This is where Tissaphernes (Old Persian Chithrafarnah, d. 395 BC) held office as satrap or governor general for the Persian Emperor Darayavahush II (Darius II, 423-404 BCE, not to be confused with Darius I, the Great). There Alcibiades offered his services as an adviser to the satrap. Such was Alcibiades's good fortune that Tissaphernes accepted the offer.

In his relations with the Greek states, the Persian satrap Tissaphernes was more inclined to diplomacy and negotiations. Alcibiades though was more inclined to achieving his ends through treachery and subterfuge. Alcibiades was well aware that Athens had been instigating the Asian Greek states under Persian rule not to pay taxes. The Athenian therefore counselled the Persian to adopt a more aggressive approach towards Athens. The militant Alcibiades also persuaded the Persian satrap Tissaphernes that Persia's best policy was to play Athens and Sparta against one another.

Alcibiades was often successful in manipulating the Persians to whom he ingratiated himself by displaying an affectation of Persian manners. When in Sparta he had similarly shown an affection for Spartan manners. In Sparta, Alcibiades had abandoned the wild and extravagant lifestyle he had enjoyed in Athens (perhaps without choice because he had no remaining wealth or property) and adopted instead the fabled austere lifestyle of the Spartans which included dressing in a single cloak, bathing in the cold waters of the River Eurotas, and dining on Spartan 'black broth' made from pork blood and vinegar.

Alcibiades Supports the Oligarchs Against the Democrats
Not content to leave matters be, Alcibiades continued his old ways and persuaded a group of Athenian generals and admirals in Samos (of the coast of Caria) to overthrow to "radical" Athenian democracy and install in its place an oligarchy - dictatorship by a power elite that included the generals. As part of his plan, Alcibiades promised to use his influence with Tissaphernes and the King of Persia, to switch sides and support the Athenian cause against the Spartans. The generals and admirals in turn persuaded their soldiers and sailors to support the coup with promises of lucrative pay from the Persian king.

Phrynichus, a politician in Athens who had opposed Alcibiades, on hearing of the plan, feared that a restored Alcibiades would seek revenge against him. Phrynichus therefore sent a secret letter to the Spartan admiral, Astyochus, informing him of Alcibiades' plot to make the Persian satrap Tissaphernes support the Athenians against the Spartans. Part of Phrynichus' offer to the Spartan admiral Astyochus was support in destroying the rebellious Athenian fleet in Samos.

Persians Refuse to Take Sides
In all likelihood, the Persians were originally unaware of these intrigues. If the Persian satrap Tissaphernes is to be faulted, it is for his own naiveté. When the Persian did become aware of the plot, Alcibiades' scheme encountered a set-back, for Tissaphernes, determined to stay neutral in the squabble, refused to make an agreement with the Athenian conspirators on any terms.

Not to be outdone or to have his scheme undone, the wily and treacherous Alcibiades managed to convince the Athenians that the Persians in fact supported his scheme - and raised the stakes by presenting the Athenians with ever increasing demands supposedly on Tissaphernes' behalf and supposedly in exchange for Persian support. The Athenians believed Alcibiades represented the Persians and were enraged at the audacity of what they thought were Persian demands! The upshot was that Alcibiades' scheme backfired, for the Athenians withdrew their support for him.

In 411 BCE, the Athenian rebels nevertheless launched their planned coup. They succeeded in overthrowing the democrats and in installing an oligarchy of four hundred erstwhile dictators - a coalition which didn't survive very long, for the 400 squabbled between themselves and a few days later were replaced by an oligarchy of 5,000 consisting of Athens' wealthiest landowners. In a strange twist of fate, the Athenian democrats continued to hold power on the island of Samos - which, the reader will remember, lay off the Asiatic coast where the Athenian navy was based. At Samos, the democrats thwarted the coup launched by the generals and 300 would-be Samian oligarchs.

Alcibiades Supports Democrats Against Oligarchs
Now Alcibiades, true to form, concluded a pact that resulted in an alliance between himself and the democrats of Samos. The pact was that Alcibiades would be reinstated as an Athenian citizen in exchange for Alcibiades using his influence with the Persians to garner Persian support for the Athenian democrats in Samos. Alcibiades used his considerable oratorical and persuasion skills to convince the Athenian soldiers and sailors stationed in Samos to elect him as their general. He managed to rile the troops to such an extent and they wished to waste no time in sailing to Athens in an attempt to depose the oligarchs, only to be dissuaded by Alcibiades.

Newly elected as an admiral, Alcibiades sailed to a Persian controlled port with his fleet to show-off his new-found status and power to the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. He told the Greeks that his purpose was to convince Tissaphernes not to sail against the Athenians with the Persian fleet harbored at Aspendos. The pacifist and non-interventionist Tissaphernes had no such plans to sail against the Athenians in the first place. As such, Alcibiades succeeded admirably in impressing both Persians and Athenians.

Persia Actively Supports Sparta
The war between Sparta and Athens continued unabated. In 408 BCE the Persian emperor Darius II decided to actively support Sparta in its war against Athens. He removed the non-interventionist satrap Tissaphernes from the generalship of the western Persian armies and limited Tissaphernes' satrapy to Caria. Darius then gave the satrapy of Lydia and management of the alliance with Sparta in its war with Athens to Pharnabazus under the overall command of his son Cyrus the Younger.

Actively supporting Sparta is what Alcibiades had been pushing the Persians to do in the first place. But now that Alcibiades had switched sides and joined the Athenians, that made him an adversary of the Persians.

Setbacks for the Spartan-Persian Alliance
Greek naval fleet.
Image credit: Sharing Knowledge (from Wikipedia)
Athens and Sparta had in the meantime been preparing themselves for a 'mother of all' sea battle to end all battles. When the two fleets engaged, the Athenian fleet gained the upper-hand and were set to destroy the Spartan fleet entirely, when a timely intervention by the Persian saved the Spartan fleet from utter destruction. The reprieve was only temporary, for the Spartan-Persian alliance suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Athenians during their next engagement. Alcibiades was now fully engaged as a restored Athenian admiral and general and is credited with many Athenian victories over the Spartans and their Persian supporters.

Victory for the Spartan-Persian Alliance
Alcibiades Blamed for Athenian Defeat
But as the world turns, so would the fortunes of the Athenian's new found hero, for in 406 BCE the Spartan-Persian alliance scored an important victory over the Athenians fleet led by Alcibiades of the coast of Ionia in Asia Minor. While the defeat was relatively minor, Alcibiades' enemies in Athens used the defeat to blame him and the resulting internal divisions in Athens served to further weaken them. In 405 the Athenians would suffer a more devastating defeat at Aegospotami. That defeat cut off the main source of Athenian food supply which was brought in by sea from the wheat fields to the north of the Black Sea.

Alcibiades's Last Desperate Ploy
Alcibiades must have been delusional about his influence with Persia after warring against the Spartan-Persian alliance. For his next move was to go to Phrygia (to the north of Lydia) to seek Persian assistance in yet another scheme. In Phrygia, he sought a meeting with the Persian satrap Pharnabazus to solicit Pharnabazus' assistance for the Athenians. If that plan wasn't delusional enough, it was Alcibiades' intention to journey on from Phrygia to the imperial court of Persia and advise the Persian emperor on how to deal with the Greeks. Perhaps this was Alcibiades' last and desperate attempt to win favor in Athens by demonstrating his connections and influence with the Persian throne.

Assassination of Alcibiades
Morte di Alcibiade, the Death of Alcibeade (1839)
by Michele De Napoli (1808-1892)
Alcibiade's mistress Timandra is in the background
Amongst the accounts of what happened next, one widely held is that the Spartans discovered his plans and their admiral Lysander - with the consent of the Persians - arranged to have the hapless Alcibiade, then bedded with his mistress Timandra, assassinated.

Surrender of Athens
But Victory for Persia?
Their sea-borne food shipments cut-off and close to the point of mass starvation, Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BCE. The Persians vicariously shared in the victory.

But the Persians would not have long to savor their gains. The skies to the north were darkening and a Persian Empire weakened by internal dissent and treachery from within would have to contend with the armies of the Athenians' cousins, the Macedonians. Persian meddling in Greek affairs at a time when the Persians were weak from within would eventually cost them their empire.

For a further discussion of Persian-Greek relations during this period, see our section Peace with Greece - Really?.

» Next page: Alcibiades, Plato and Some Amazing Insights. Part 2 Selections from Plato

Additional Pages on Greek-Persian relations and influence:
» Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi
» Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences
» Similarities in Greek & Persian-Iranian Cuisine

» Full text of Plato's Alcibiades I, translated by Benjamin Jowett at ancienttexts.org
» Full text of Plato's Alcibiades I & II, translated by W.R.M. Lamb at Perseus
» Plutarch, The Life of Alcibiades in Plutarch's Lives at Perseus, translated by Bernadotte Perrin
» Plutarch, The Life of Alcibiades in The Parallel Lives at Thayer
» Andocides, Against Alcibiades in Minor Attic Orators, translated by by K. J. Maidment at Perseus

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